Friday, June 15, 2007

What a Skunk!

Golfers are usually such exemplary people!
by Charlie Leck [15 June 2007]

There is an abundance of golf terminology
in this essay; however, I have tried to
make it both understandable and
meaningful for even the non-golfer.

One can generally count on meeting awfully high quality people on a golf course. I’m talking about people of high character and polite, good manners.

It is a treat to play this game, knowing that you will be strolling the fairways with generally good and companionable people. Even in the heat of competition, golfers are hoping that others on the course will have their “A-Game” on.

Yesterday, I was the referee in the semi-final match of a very exciting amateur championship here in Minnesota. Two very good and very competitive golfers were going head to head for the right to play in the final, championship match. When one fellow was watching his struck ball carrying fretfully close to disaster, his opponent was likely cheering sincerely for the ball to reach its intended target: “Get there, get there!” One is tempted to think that the wish was less than genuine; however, in golf, that’s just not the case. If a player is going to win, he wants to win against his opponent’s very best effort and best fortune.

It was a treat, yesterday, to watch two very proven gentlemen go head to head in fierce competition. At the end of the match the loser walked off the final putting surface and said to me: “That was really fun!” When he congratulated his opponent on the victory, the sense of sincerity was both unmistakable and remarkable.

Early in the match, standing on the second tee, one of these two gentlemen turned to me and offered an apology, on behalf of Minnesota golfers, for a far less than typical golfer I had encountered the day before. I seek adjectives to describe his character and behavior. Only the word “skunk” comes to mind. The word must have gotten around the golf course. The second player in yesterday’s match said that he wanted to concur. He, too, offered an apology for the skunk who couldn’t accept his own failures and defeat after a glorious and exciting battle.

I had really enjoyed that match, two days ago. It was a thrill to be so close to the action as these two athletes slugged it out shot after shot. After 15 holes of the match, Skunk stood 3 up. In golf terms that means he was dormy. He was 3 holes ahead of his opponent with only 3 holes to play. All he had to do was halve (tie) any one of those 3 remaining holes and he would go on to the semi-finals.

The change in skunk as he stood on the 16th tee was remarkable. His caddy mentioned it later in the day. His personality altered dramatically. He withdrew tightly into himself. It wasn’t extreme concentration that I’m trying to describe here. Skunk’s body language cried out in tension and his smooth, capable swing at the golf ball became disjointed and jumpy. He lost the 3 consecutive holes and the match ended up ‘all square’ and required extra, sudden-death holes to determine a winner.

Most observers would have written Skunk off, especially after he pushed his opening drive in the playoff into a water hazard along the right side of the fairway. Somehow, however, this withdrawn, unhappy, angry player summoned up two remarkable and talented golf shots. He took a proper drop from the point at which his ball had entered the hazard. I noticed that his hands shook as he went through the measurements. He stumbled a bit as he bent and laid his club on the ground. Together, though, we got the measurement done accurately and a properly substituted ball was dropped.

Penalized one shot, Skunk was now in trouble. His opponent struck a safe, conservative shot to the green and was there in two. Skunk’s caddy tried to settle his player. He spoke clearly to him of the distance remaining and the kind of swing it would take to get the ball on line. He was imploring his player to rediscover his confidence. The endangered player went into a mode of deep, deep concentration and sent a shot soaring true and straight toward its intended target. The ball settled down on the putting surface, only 8 feet short of the hole. After his opponent putted to the lip of the cup and was conceded his par, Skunk lined up his putt and struck it perfectly and dead-center into the cup. The hole was, remarkably, halved.

Coming off the putting surface, Skunk showed a sign of rebirth. His walk was more confident again and his head was up. The mood swing was noteworthy and it was clear that Skunk had reacquired the smell of victory. Yet, even though he struck a mighty and true drive from the next tee, on a short par 5 hole, he was not to finish the hole and the match would be over.

So enters the scene this miserable wretch of a rules official and your current describer of the events of this extended golf match.

Rules School 101 (Introduction to Rules Officiating and Refereeing of Matches) teaches that the referee, or rules official, should play no part whatsoever in the outcome of a match or in the result of a player’s score. Remain outside the competition, observe and only administer fair and just rulings when absolutely required.

I know now that I shouldn’t have done it, but I offered to drive ahead on this second hole of the playoff to observe the tee shots. It is a strange hole that requires the opening shot to go up and over a distant hill that prevents the players from seeing the final results of their effort. I thought I might try to help see where the golf balls ended up after they were struck. When I arrived at an observation point, however, and looked back toward the golfers, I realized that I was looking into a very bright, late afternoon sky and that I would not be able to see the balls leave the clubhead when they were struck. Oh well, I would do my best.

Skunk’s opponent struck a shot that was fair and straight and he signaled me from the tee, by holding his club straight up in the air, that it was indeed ‘down the middle.” With that assistance, I managed to pick the ball up and I watched it finish.

On the other hand, when Skunk hit his ball he gave no signal, nor did his caddy, and I saw absolutely nothing. When the players arrived on the scene, I informed them that I neither saw nor heard anything of that shot. Skunk was not pleased, but he had a general idea of the direction and we commenced a search. Now, the rules of golf allow an absolute total time for that search of 5 minutes. I started a stop watch the second I saw Skunk’s caddy begin searching for the ball.

“I struck it dead-solid,” Skunk exclaimed to me, “right over that bunker. It should be out there in the right rough.”

He and I began a search in the rough to the right. It is not high rough and a ball should be easily found. Time was running. Sensing we would not find the ball, Skunk began to reevaluate the results of his shot and felt now that perhaps it had gone left and was in a thick, weedy, over-grown water hazard.

I explained to Skunk that we had no evidence of that and I would be forced to determine that it was a lost ball if we did not find it in another moment. That would require a return to the tee to hit another shot in addition to a 1 shot penalty. Skunk did not like that and began to rant. He wanted the right to drop from the water hazard. I prayed we would find the ball. Skunk crossed the fairway to the other side, where the hazard was, calling out that I should get a second opinion on my ruling. So, I called my supervisor.

“Well, Charlie,” my supervisor drawled, “in this particular instance, when it is so easy to find a ball if it is not in the hazard on that particular hole, I think we have strong enough evidence to assume that the ball must have ended up in the water hazard.”

Okay. I had been over ruled. I didn’t like it, but it is a fact of life that it happens. Now we had to establish the point at which this phantom ball last crossed the margin of the hazard, so we could determine a proper drop point for dropping a substituted ball. Here, we were really on shaky ground; however, I was fortunate that it was match play and I only needed to get agreement between the two opponents. No other player on the golf course or in the event would be affected by this ruling.

“Well, the ball passed over this bunker right here,” Skunk was contending, “and likely struck this side hill and bounced left here and across the hazard line here.” This was no longer a mighty, dead-solid and perfect shot he was describing. In fact, it was a rather feeble one. I grew more anxious.

None of it was very scientific, and I was uncomfortable, but the very gracious opponent was amenable to the logic. So, I authorized a “point of entry” and went over the options that Skunk had available to him. He chose to go back, keeping my entry point determination and the flagstick in a direct line, to a place where he could get a decent drop and a viable shot. Skunk properly dropped a ball and then struck a powerful shot, trying, I guess, to reach the green. The ball sailed to the right and went clearly out of bounds. When we determined it was indeed out of play, Skunk turned to his opponent and, less than graciously, conceded the match. As would be expected of me, I congratulated the winner and also offered my hand to Skunk. He turned away as if he hadn’t seen my approach and stormed toward a golf cart for a ride to the clubhouse. I headed out, with his caddy, in a different direction.

The caddy lamented that they had lost the match five holes previously, when Skunk went into his funk. I remained silent, detached and anxious to pack my gear and head for home.

At the clubhouse I learned, from Skunk himself, that they had found his original ball when they drove past it on the way back in.

“Right there in the right rough, only 171 yards from the middle of the green!”

“Right where we were looking?” I wanted to ask the question, but Skunk stormed past me and didn’t give me the opportunity. As he disappeared in the direction of the parking lot, I realized that his tone had been very accusatory, making it clear that his defeat was on my hands. When I arrived at the scoreboard, to bid adieu to my supervisor, he told me that Skunk (of course, he didn’t call him that) had given him the now found golf ball, with instructions that it be given to me. Now, that was a clear message indeed!

I wanted to explain to my supervisor that the biggest mistakes made were the one to discontinue the search in that part of the golf course and the one to allow him have a drop from a water hazard when he should have been sent back to the tee to play another shot (Rule 27).

In Skunk’s mind, I was solely to blame for his defeat because I had not seen the flight of his ball. It pushed me perilously close to giving up this silly business of volunteering my time as a rules official. In fact, the great mistake I made was the offer to go forward to watch the competitors’ shots. I should have remained with them near the tee.

I feel no sense of victory as I write this. I felt terrible that evening and could not sleep. I tossed and turned all night, trying to figure out what I could have done differently that would have been more helpful to this golfer. I was both depressed and exhausted the next day when I went out in that semi-final match with those two extraordinary gentlemen. Their kind and sincere apologies buoyed me a great deal. They said they would express their opinions to my supervisor. They felt the golfer in question (Skunk) should somehow be reprimanded. It was kind of them. Their comments will likely bring me back for more tournaments and more fine golf play.

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